Iraq’s civilian government is at its most fragile point since 2003. Newly seated Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi faces a daunting array of threats, even by the standards of Baghdad’s violent politics. Factions of the Popular Mobilization Forces, a coalition of Shiite militias who have fought alongside Iraqi armed forces, are brazenly attacking and intimidating Kadhimi and his government.
On July 6, gunmen in Baghdad murdered Hisham al-Hashemi, an advisor to Kadhimi on security matters who had received death threats from Shiite militias. Hashemi’s death came amid a spate of other killings of public figures critical of the Shiite militias and their actions toward ongoing protests against government corruption and dysfunction.
Meanwhile, Shiite militias openly hostile to Kadhimi’s government have taken over key government buildings in the heart of Baghdad. The fact that these militias are ostensibly part of the Iraqi armed forces makes the situation look like a slow-moving coup, with Kadhimi’s government facing the prospect of an overthrow. Violence in the streets of Baghdad and other cities only add to the sense of crisis, made all the worse by the global pandemic and Iraq’s dwindling financial resources due to falling oil prices.
It’s not hard to imagine what happens next in a turn for the worse for Kadhimi’s government. Kadhimi himself could be killed, captured or driven out of Baghdad by the hostile militias now lurking around his offices. These same militias, many with ties to Iran, could then easily suspend or disband the parliament. Civilian rule in Iraq would effectively be over, with power handed to whomever could emerge as a unifying leader of the various Shi’ite militias, who have been increasingly fragmented since the United States assassinated Iranian Quds Force General Qassim Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. The death of Muhandis, the leader of the Popular Mobilization Forces and head of a militia called Kataib Hezbollah, has worsened infighting among the Shi’ite militias, meaning that there is no clear replacement for civilian leadership among the factions who might bring about Kadhimi’s downfall.
If Kadhimi’s government nears collapse in the weeks or months ahead, then Washington will face a difficult choice — save it or let it fall. The present U.S. policy of support for the civilian government in Baghdad, under Kadhimi or another Iraqi leader, basically calls for almost automatic intervention. U.S. troops in Iraq number roughly 5,200, enough to secure the government center in Baghdad and preserve a physical presence for Kadhimi and his administration even if real political power rests elsewhere.
More U.S. forces would likely return to Iraq if the current contingent were used to preserve the government in the face of militia threats, undoubtedly setting off a series of bloody confrontations that would resemble the U.S. occupation days. If Kadhimi’s government is allowed to fall, Iraq will likely see the kind of chaos that has gripped Libya in recent years, with multiple armed factions fighting one another amid interregnum for some period of time. The endgame for that scenario is unclear but would probably involve Iran orchestrating a coalition of militia forces who could establish some measure of control over Baghdad and southern Iraq.
Neither of these prospects are appealing to anyone who wants Iraq to see a brighter future. The idea of letting Iraq veer toward mayhem without a forceful U.S. effort to stop it would be considered unethical by many. But Washington should be ready to refrain from further interventionism in Iraq nonetheless. Backing any civilian government in Iraq with U.S. forces at this point means a return to the quagmire of occupation. Moreover, no civilian government has much hope of survival in Iraq, with or without U.S. support. The power dynamics currently leaving Kadhimi so vulnerable are beyond Washington’s ability to change.
Iran and its militia proxies have effectively hollowed out the Iraqi state by becoming the key battlefield force in the existential struggle against the Islamic State. The Iraqi government’s incompetence in dealing with the Islamic State threat was on full display when it lost huge swaths of territory, areas won back largely due to ground fighting done by the Popular Mobilization Forces with overt Iranian support. That saga left the Iraqi government struggling to muster any legitimacy with the Iraqi people, whose sentiments could not be more clear. The ongoing street protests reflect a deep disillusionment with the entire that political system Iraqi — and American — officials are trying to maintain.
Recent polling by the World Values Survey shows a distinct darkening of views by Iraqis toward the political system over the past three years. Confidence in the government, never high, is cratering, with more than half of Iraqis saying that they have no confidence in the government whatsoever. A full 84 percent of Iraqis say they lack confidence in parliament. Nearly 80 percent of Iraqis do not trust elections. And in a very telling sign, support for having a strong leader unaccountable through elections or parliament has risen to 66 percent. These are just a few of the indicators from the survey that reflect the nature of the Iraqi views voiced so forcefully by the demonstrators in the streets. Put simply, most Iraqis feel that their government is beyond redemption, lost to corruption and incompetence and beholden to Washington and Tehran.
The sad truth is that no civilian government, Kadhimi’s or any other that could be cobbled together, will have significant legitimacy or capacity to withstand political challenges from the power centers dominated by clerics, militias and Iranian operatives. And no amount of American intervention will change that.
Of course, Kadhimi’s government might survive, beating the increasingly bleak odds it faces. We should all hope so. Ideally a civilian government can continue on, working to ease tensions with the hostile militias and even find ways to integrate them into a governance coalition formally. In this way a civilian government could curb its political threats and restore some of its legitimacy. That is really the best prospect for civilian rule of Iraq at this point — power sharing with Shiite militias under the sway of Iran. That idea sickens many in Washington, but frankly anyone in the Beltway thinking they have the power to create a better outcome in terms of aligning Baghdad more closely with the United States is borderline delusional. That line of thinking is nothing more than a repeating loop that continues costly and ultimately futile interventionism.
If the worst comes to pass, the U.S. response will hinge on the timing and the outcome of the upcoming presidential elections. No one in the Trump administration is likely to apply thoughtful decision-making at high levels if such a crisis unfolds between now and January. The machinery of U.S. interventionism in the Middle East will effectively run itself, following a familiar routine of airstrikes, troop deployments and the like as Washington reflexively reaches to save the failing system it worked so assiduously to create.
If Kadhimi’s government collapses with Trump out of office, a Biden administration would have much better capacity for difficult deliberations on a U.S. response. But it would take an extraordinary act of political will on the part of the president and his national security team to withstand pressures for intervention in such a scenario. That is not impossible. President Obama managed to hold back U.S. impulses for intervention in Syria for years despite enormous pressure to become involved. But nothing short of that kind of commitment to non-intervention in Iraq will prevent the United States from yet another round of fruitless warring in the heart of the Middle East.